Some sober thought on the Halifax concert scandal hangover

In 2006, the summer I started McNutt Against the Music, the Rolling Stones came to Halifax.

On Wednesday, almost five years later, the boozy, misleading haze of possibility that accompanied their visit finally lifted, leaving a lot of ugly truths behind for our city to come to terms with.

I’ve spent the last two days engrossed in the concert funding scandal that is rocking City Hall. For the uninitiated: since 2008, Halifax’s chief administrative officer has been loaning unapproved funds to concert promoter Harold MacKay’s Power Promotions to support the company’s yearly concerts on the Halifax Commons, using the city-run Halifax Metro Centre to facilitate the transactions and side-stepping the chief financial officer and council altogether. It began with the Keith Urban show in 2008, continued through Paul McCartney and KISS in 2009, and concluded last year for concerts with the Black Eyed Peas and Country Rocks featuring Alan Jackson. Following the well-acknowledged failure of those last two shows, Power Promotions went bankrupt out of business. (Corrected following publication.)

Most of the $5.6 million loaned through this program was paid back by MacKay. But on July 21 last year, days before the Black Eyed Peas concert, MacKay went to the city with an ultimatum: he needed $400,000 or that show and Country Rocks would have to be cancelled. Following a meeting with the Mayor and the Acting CAO Wayne Anstey, MacKay received two $200,000 “repayable grants” that would be paid back if ticket sales reached a certain plateau. They didn’t, MacKay’s company went out of business, and the city is out $359,550. And how did this all come to light? Well, we got the bill.

Anstey is out—his “early retirement” in June wasn’t quick enough for council or the public and so his immediate resignation was accepted last night—and now the bloodhounds are circling Mayor Peter Kelly. What did he know? When did he know it? Why did he approve these loans? Though it’s too early to tell, especially since Kelly has a miraculous, inexplicable ability to avoid having public issues stick to him—anchorman Steve Murphy referred to him as “The Teflon Mayor” on CTV News last night—I would not at all be surprised if this scandal is the beginning of the end of his political fortunes in Halifax.

And yet, what ends alongside is the intoxicated state that inspired these concerts in the first place. It was a state of mind that was not without its noble side, but which ended up producing only mean, ugly truth in the end.

It was the mistaken idea that Halifax could be a major concert destination.

That with the right people, and the right money, we could bring the sorts of major acts that pass us by year after year, tour after tour. That with a couple of success stories under our belt, the acts would start lining up to add our coastal city to their itineraries when they began to plot their worldwide adventures.

We partied hard on that belief, made mistakes, and now we have to cope with the hangover.

* * * * *

I’m not blameless in this. Look through the archives: you’ll find my excitement over the Rolling Stones’ show, my disappointment with all sides of the Celine Dion announcement/cancellation, my speculation over who might be a good fit for the Commons, my reviews of the Paul McCartney and Kiss shows.

What can I say? Growing up in Halifax—a periphery city on the edge of the country—I felt a nerve pinched every time I saw a “Canadian Tour” announcement with an agenda that stopped at Montreal. I long ago came to terms with the fact that most of the bands on my “list” required me to travel far away from friends and my fellow Haligonians to see them. Anyone who spends even a weekend in Halifax knows how amazing the music culture is here, but one was disposed to accept that our geographic isolation would keep all but the most eager of bands from making it to our shores.

But what if we could prove ourselves? What if we could support some of the world’s biggest bands with a “megaconcert” or two and, in doing so, demonstrate our viability as a touring destination? Even putting aside the ego boost of being able to say, “We hosted the Rolling Stones,” or “We hosted Paul McCartney,” what if those bands led to more bands? What if it led to U2? Or Bruce Springsteen?

So I bought in. And for a few years, I defended the Commons concerts from those who objected to them, be it because of their use of public land or because of their support from the public purse. I shook my head when Jennifer Watts—one of the city’s best councilors—joined the naysayers in opposing the Commons’ use. These were city-defining, possibility-inspiring events…how could someone not support them?

The cracks began to show in 2008 and 2009. I’d been in favour of using the Commons for shows provided the concerts involved had the attendance to justify closing the public parkland; basically, anything larger than 30,000, since concerts smaller than that amount could be held in the much-better-suited Garrison Grounds on Citadel Hill (where the Foo Fighters, Backstreet Boys, The Tragically Hip and countless others have played). So Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney…fine. But Kiss felt borderline to me, and the yearly Country Rocks show never seemed to get more than 15-20,000 people out. I began hearing rumblings, both from journalists like Tim Bousquet at The Coast as well as contacts of mine, that the crowd estimates for these shows were way above what actual ticket sales were.

In 2010, the entire operation came crumbling down. With the city having approved two rock shows and a country concert on the Commons, MacKay pitifully announced that the rock shows would be headlined by the Black Eyed Peas and Kid Rock, seemingly the best he could put together. The Kid Rock show was cancelled about a week after tickets went on sale, the Black Eyed Peas show was poorly attended, the Country one didn’t do much better, Harold MacKay’s company went bust and all sorts of bills were left unpaid to several local companies and organizations.

And now we count the taxpayers are among them.

* * * * *

First two rules of gambling:
1. Know the game.
2. If you don’t know the game, be sure you’re comfortable with the stakes.

The problem with this whole disaster is that the City of Halifax, the mayor and the CAO in particular, didn’t know the game. That $400,000 last-minute loan is evidence of that.

Consider that the ticket price for the Black Eyed Peas show at risk was over $100, when their similar outdoor shows in Ontario that summer were going between $40 and $60. Consider that there was minimal buzz among Halifax teens and young adults for the show, and it sure as heck wasn’t going to get out the baby boom crowd the way the Stones and McCartney did. Consider that they simply aren’t a megaband with gigantic drawing power (and that very few “pop” artists are big draws, even in major markets).

That show was going to bomb. They should have known it was going to bomb. (Maybe Premier Darrell Dexter did, and that’s why the provincial government turned down Kelly’s ask to help with the $400,000.) But instead, they basically gave away $400,000 that anyone with a rudimentary understanding of the concert business could have told them they were unlikely to get back.

And here’s the infuriating part: city officials had ample evidence that the Halifax megaconcert business was more smoke than fire, certainly more evidence than those of us citizens did.

Now, the smoke having lifted, we can see just how much bullshit was being thrown around. We see that Paul McCartney—a friggin’ Beatle—can only pull 26,500 tickets in Halifax at the $100 price point, a far cry from the 50,000 attendees reported in the media as the estimate for the show. I remember attendance of about 20,000 being thrown around for the Keith Urban Country Rocks show; the actual paid attendance was about 11,700. The Kiss show was actually fairly accurate in media estimates (just over 21,000) but both Country Rocks 2010 and the Blake Eyed Peas were disasters – 10,000 for the former, and just over 8,000 for the latter.

These shows took millions of dollars from the public purse to put together, from in-kind contributions to loans from both the provincial and municipal governments (the province had the better sense and stopped putting up loans after 2009’s shows). And these attendance figures show that all the rhetoric about these concerts as city-defining events, or huge economic stimuli, was just that: empty rhetoric. (They certainly didn’t justify using the Halifax Commons.)

But more importantly: we haven’t become a major concert destination. The bigger bands haven’t shown up, and this year we got piddles. Moncton got AC/DC and U2 and good on them: they’ve got a more central location, a better venue and they seem to actually be able to run a functional, non-scandalized concert support system.

We got a poorly attended Black Eyed Peas show, a bureaucratic scandal, and a hole in the public purse that’s unlikely to be filled. And one hell of a hangover.public

* * * * *

So what do we do now?

We come to terms with the truth: that all the government money or public enthusiasm in the world can’t overcome the limitations that keep us from being a major concert destination. We’re too isolated geographically, making it hard/expensive to travel here and bumping up ticket prices too high when tours do end up coming. And we don’t have the population to support the kinds of bands who can pull huge crowds; as Waye Mason rightly points out, only a small handful of bands can even pull 50,000 in Toronto, Canada’s biggest music market.

We also show our gratitude and support to smaller promoters who are doing some amazing work getting bands to make it to Halifax, whether at events like the Halifax Pop Explosion or year-round. Harold MacKay may have sold our city on big hopes and dreams, but it’s the smaller guys who are actually making concerts happen here without breaking the bank, and in the process doing a lot more to build culture in this city than a one-off mega show could ever do.

And we cut ourselves off from this weird, damaging neurosis we seem to have in Halifax, an inferiority complex paired with an easy susceptibility to “the big fix.” Whether it’s the megaconcerts, the “Atlantica” port idea, the (disastrous) Commonwealth Games bid that failed, the proposed Convention Centre…it’s like we’re just eagerly awaiting the next magic solution that will propel us to a world-class city. Each of these ideas may have (had) their own independent merits, but if we’re only implementing them on drunken possibility alone, then we need to put on the brakes.

We could have used a good intervention a year ago on the Commons concerts. We’d be wise to make sure this rare opportunity to sober up does not go wasted.


4 responses to “Some sober thought on the Halifax concert scandal hangover

  1. Hi Ryan,
    thanks for providing this – it sums up many of my feelings about this ongoing debacle. I’m going to be following the next municipal election with much more considerable interest!

  2. Nice article. You may be right. It sounds like an exciting idea to become a major Canadian concert destination – but what are we actually capable of? A big music name isn’t enough to guarantee a successful concert, the promotion companies need to do their market research, basically, their job. And for the record – Power Promotions never officially went bankrupt. They were set up in a way that they never had to declare bankruptcy.

  3. Pingback: The full album, and the Pixies’ Doolittle tour live in Halifax « McNutt Against the Music·

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